Contract Magazine Ι May 31, 2017

Morningstar’s new floor for its Chicago-based digital product developers places a premium on movement—the movement of its 190 team members as they get up from their desks for frequent standing meetings, the movement of mobile sit-stand desks that allow employees to take their workstations with them, and the movement of wide sliding glass doors that let every meeting room spill out into common areas.

The company—which functions much like a software development firm, producing investment data in the form of reports, databases, and apps— has had a number of floors within 22 West Washington Street in Chicago for nearly 10 years. But it had not previously occupied this 29,000-squarefoot floor, designed by Perkins+Will to be in line with the agile management theory that the work of the Morningstar developers is based upon. Also known as agile development, the process encourages face-to-face communication with constant iteration and experimentation. This need for continual, spontaneous reorganization is why nearly every square foot of this workplace is capable of hosting quick, informal meetings, or scrums, even in the corridors.

Meetings on the go
Morningstar wanted “more noise, more activity, and more overheard conversation,” says David Williams, Morningstar’s head of design. The overall floor plan prizes flexibility and on-the-fly collaboration. It is organized along two wide axial corridors, which the company calls boulevards, and four small meeting rooms, internally referred to as pavilions. The meeting rooms feature U-shaped stand-up tables from UniFor’s custom Naòs system, complete with barbershop-style footrests that make it comfortable to lean into a teammate’s presentation. Each pavilion is a different color, creating recognizable landmarks throughout the largely symmetrical floor plan. Informal lounges are adjacent to the meeting rooms.

The pavilions’ wide UniFor Sincro sliding glass doors, designed by Renzo Piano, allow meetings to spill out of their assigned rooms. Because team members need to go in and out with ease, expanding meeting spaces beyond a room’s strict borders was a key aspect of the interior, according to Williams. “There was an overarching sense [in the design process] that this is not about a collection of individuals doing individual work but about community. It is teambased,” says Williams.

The need for transparency and letting all team members see what others are working on is fundamental to agile development, and Perkins+Will responded with many writable surfaces, both along walls and on wheels. Employees have sit-stand desks. “Everyone can see [one another’s work]; everyone can talk to it. It’s not an ‘in your screen’ world. Everything is just sort of out there,” says Kristin Rosebrough, senior project architect at Perkins+Will.

Even the wide boulevards are lined with marker boards. To test having impromptu meetings along these corridors, Rosebrough and her team taped out the dimensions of each area early in the design process, actually huddling together to assess the proportions. According to Rosebrough, they asked themselves: “When this many people stand in this space, is it big enough? Is it too big? How does it feel?”

Infusing industrial finishes and art
Located along the office’s central axis, a red semicircular auditorium—referencing the signature Morningstar O logo—is the largest meeting space. Here, bleacher seating, pillows, and neon-colored stools by Ettore Sottsass create a breezy, informal environment for product showcases and demonstrations. On axis with the auditorium, an employee cafe adds a sense of variety with a plywood-clad area with booth seating.

In the glass-encased elevator core, the reflection of media screens through multiple layers of glass creates the illusion of seeing across the entire floor plate. Industrial finishes give the otherwise composed and refined space some grit and texture. The flooring is made of Aronson rubber tiles with brass studs, and the corners of the walls are lined in a stamped aluminum sidewalk grate that is painted matte black. Gridded art walls by David Salkin reference Chicago’s omnipresent street plan, but also resemble the scrum board grids seen everywhere at Morningstar, tracking various projects through the agile process.

Williams indicates that employees have embraced the new office. “We thought a lot more example leading and hand-holding would need to take place,” he says. But within the first week after moving in, people intuitively knew how to use the space.

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